Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Fiction Writers Can Teach Us About Songwriting

Hey there 5 followers (and Others)! I hope this post finds you well.

Recently, I came across the audio of science fiction author Cory Doctorow interviewing fellow science fiction author William Gibson.   In fact, you can listen or download the audio from that talk here. At the end of this talk, they open up the floor to questions from the audience. Predictably, someone asks the obligatory "What is your advice for writers that are just starting out?" question. Here's what Gibson says:

Well, I mean, I always go back to this totally annoying advice that Robert A. Heinlein gave, which I still think is the best advice for young writers, and it's that, you know, you have to write, you have to finish what you write, you have to submit what you write for publication. While you're waiting for it to be rejected, you have to write something else. And, you know, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. If you don't keep doing that over and over, nothing will happen.

I thought that was brilliant, so I scoured the web looking for the actual rules that Heinlein wrote, and here they are:

Robert A. Heinlein's Rules For Writing:

You Must Write

Yep. I guess there's no way around it. If you want to be a writer of any kind, you have to write. I guess I would say that you can't be merely interested in writing, you have to be DISCIPLINED about it. You have to make distraction-free writing your priority. 
You Must Finish What You Write
It's probably not a song until it's finished. How are you going to play it for anyone unless it is finished? Work on it until it is finished. Again with the discipline.
You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except To Editorial Order

Obviously, I vehemently disagree with this one. I feel that in songwriting specifically, rewriting is what makes the song HAPPEN. I've read commentaries on this particular rule, and they all agree that, a) Heinlein rewrote all the time, and that, b) he was probably talking about INCESSANT rewriters that rewrote and rewrote, never believing their novel to be good enough. I can understand that. Sometimes I have problems calling something finished when there are still things that bother me about it.
You Must Put The Work On The Market

We can tell from our modern vantage point, that Heinlein is in the realm of "Traditional Publishing" from this statement. He's talking about sending your manuscript off to publishers with the hope of landing a publishing deal. I think this is still a way to go, but it may not be for much longer. The analogue in the songwriting universe, is much the same: land publishing meetings so you can play several songs for them, with the hope of landing one of the 7 types of publishing deals.
 You Must Keep The Work On The Market Until It Is Sold
Then you collect mountains, great large heaps of rejection letters, until someone finally "gets it" or is tired of being annoyed by your manuscripts littering their mailbox, at which point they offer you a publishing deal. In songwriting, I don't think it works so much like this. It's more like this: the publisher, during those meetings, will most likely hear something in what you wrote that they think is close to something they can sell. They will offer you re-write suggestions and send you on your way.  Then it will be up to you: do you rewrite it to please the publisher, or do you shop it unchanged to other publishers? Maybe both...anyway, you keep working until it is sold. 
...and though not in Heinlein's original list of rules, most people, including me,  agree with Robert J. Sawyer's amendment: 

Start Working On Something Else
This one can sometimes feel like juggling, trying to keep as many balls in the air as you can. After you consider your song "done," get on to the next one. Keep up the discipline. Don't give up. Keep moving forward.

This Week: 

Still working on my "positive song." I have the form together, and a couple of scratch verses that I feel require a kind of heavy rewrite in order for the verses to "lock in" to the sentiment of the chorus. I recorded the whole song, but upon extensive listening, I feel the tempo needs to be a little faster...back to the drawing board.

David Wilcox
The Amazing Rhythm Aces
Gary Nicholson
The Bridge
Darrell Scott
Kent Blazy

The Black Company

I Should Be Writing

...I think I'm gonna start a podcast....but who would listen?

See ya next week.

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